Had he not lost almost five years to military service at the peak of his baseball career, Ted Williams’ batting statistics would have surpassed every player in history. That’s how the conversation goes with some fans, anyway, and they may have a point. In a similar vein, art lovers sometimes speculate that Diego Velázquez would be recognized as the world’s greatest painter if he hadn’t “sold out” and become court painter to King Philip IV of Spain.
That argument is even more hypothetical than the one about Ted Williams, and it should be noted that a lot of artists and experts — including Manet and Picasso — already consider Velázquez to be the all-time best. You can’t help wondering, though, what he might have produced if he hadn’t taken the job with King Philip at the age of 24.
Velázquez was born in 1599, and by his teens he was producing paintings of astonishing beauty; they were of everyday subjects, often with still-life elements. An outstanding example is The Waterseller of Seville, which has, among other masterstrokes, exquisitely rendered water condensation on the side of a foreground jug.
His skill caught the attention of one of the king’s ministers, and Velázquez was soon brought to Madrid. He was an ambitious young man, and when the king offered him the court-painter gig, Velázquez accepted the offer to be rich and famous. Hey, who wouldn’t?
The problem, from an artistic standpoint, was that the job basically involved painting portraits of the king and his family, and King Philip was… well, not what you’d call handsome. The king wasn’t a very good subject, you might say. His forehead was a vast, empty expanse, and he had the distinctive Habsburg facial structure: Generations of royal inbreeding had resulted in a prominent underslung jaw. (As bad as Philip’s was, his son and successor Charles II was so disfigured, the poor guy was unable to chew.)
Velázquez accepted the challenge, though, churning out portraits of Philip in closeup, Philip full-length, Philip seated, Philip standing, Philip on horseback, and so on. We may look at the results now and say, “oh, dear”, but the king was delighted. That’s how bad it must have been — Philip found the likenesses flattering. He developed a friendship with Velázquez, and gave him additional responsibilities. Diego became an event organizer, furnished the royal apartments, and even handled the occasional diplomatic mission.
In 1649 Velázquez was sent to Italy to buy some paintings for King Philip’s collection, and he scooped up some masterpieces that are now among the most important pieces in the Prado museum. While abroad, Velázquez also had the opportunity to paint the unforgettable portrait of Pope Innocent X, whose expression seems to be commanding you to kneel.
The most famous picture Velázquez painted was almost his last. It’s now called Las Meninas (The Ladies-In-Waiting), although the picture centers on the Infanta Margarita, a little girl in a ridiculously large dress. As you study the painting, you notice that Velázquez has put himself in it, standing at his easel. The king and queen are reflected in a mirror on a back wall, as though they are posing for Velázquez at the spot where we are standing.
If he hadn’t taken the job as Court Painter, we can only speculate what else Velázquez might have produced, but he certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to paint Las Meninas. Could he have gone on to paint even greater works? Who knows? It’s enough that he was among the best who ever lived. For that matter, so was Ted Williams.